The Bible not only informed the laws and structure of America’s government, it also motivated these daring generations of Christian patriots to proceed with the monumental task of severing ties with the world’s premiere superpower to begin their own nation as a self-governed people built on the biblical concept that “all men are created equal.”
These two classifications of scripture – informational and motivational – are not distinct; they overlap. The fact that the Bible recommends and informs a model of righteous people engaged in self-government is motivational as well as instructional. But some passages of scripture were highly influential in the nation’s founding as more persuasive than informative. Psalm 35 is one example in that the text and timing of that message reinforced in the hearts of the First Continental Congress that God was on their side, blessing this endeavor. The psalmist’s prayer was their prayer at this critical moment and the timing was interpreted as the supernatural affirmation of God.
Gordon S. Wood summarized the importance of scripture in Revolutionary America, “It was the clergy who made the revolution meaningful for most common people, because for every gentleman who read a scholarly pamphlet and delved into ancient history for an explanation of events, there were dozens of ordinary people who read the Bible and looked to their ministers for an interpretation of what the revolution meant.”
What one historian said of the American Civil War applies also to the Revolution: “Convincing soldiers to kill for their country was more difficult than inspiring them to die for it.” After all, the essence of both Christianity and patriotism was self-sacrifice, even martyrdom. Giving one’s life for a righteous cause seemed to fit with a soldier’s view of the world. Killing was another matter, however.
In addition to Psalm 35, what other passages played a prominent role in inspiring the people to take up arms and fight for their freedom?
Liberty: Leviticus 25:10
First of all, the people needed something to fight for. Patrick Henry captured eloquently the culmination of hundreds of sermons over the Revolutionary era when he proclaimed, “Give me Liberty or give me death!” (March 23, 1775)
“Liberty” was frequently on the lips of revolutionary Americans, and no word generated greater praise or stirred more emotion than it. Here was something worth fighting for. The Bible verse that motivated this determination to fight for liberty is Galatians 5:1. According to historian James P. Byrd, author of “Sacred Scripture Sacred War,” Galatians 5:1 was the third most cited biblical text in revolutionary era discourse.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
This generation not only spoke of liberty but co-opted symbols of liberty from Europe, and created some of their own. The liberty tree was a familiar symbol of liberty, as was the liberty pole, Lady liberty, the liberty cap and other symbols and expressions, culminating one hundred years later in the Statue of Liberty (1876).
Among the best known symbols of liberty in American history as a symbol that has had its actual history shrouded in myth.
The Liberty Bell was not called “The Liberty Bell” in 1776. It was simply known as the “State House Bell.” It was not rung on the Fourth of July 1776. It rang in protest on October 31, 1765, the day the Stamp Act took affect; and on October 18, 1773, to summon citizens to a meeting on the Tea Act; and on April 27, 1775, to commemorate events at Concord and Lexington; and on July 8, 1776, prior to a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The bells famous crack was not the result of vigorous tolling on July 4, 1776 but rather the result of defective manufacturing or materials.
The story of the bell starts in 1751, when the Pennsylvania assembly ordered a great bell, which was to hang in the recently completed State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges (1701). Instructions were given to the agent in London to add these words around its crown:
By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State House in Philada.
“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” Lev. 25:10
In 1701, during his second and last visit to Pennsylvania, William Penn framed and signed the “Charter of Privileges,” refining the original “Frame of Government” (1682) and expanding self-government for the colonists. The charter affirmed basic principles of the rule of law, property rights, “Civil Liberties,” and “Liberty of Conscience” in “Religious profession and Worship.” More broadly it acknowledged the rights of self governing citizens to make their own laws through the “powers and privileges of an Assembly, according to the rights of the freeborn subjects of England.”
Leviticus 25:10 references liberty in the context of the ancient practice of the Jewish Jubilee. And the year of Jubilee, the consecrated 50th year, the people were released from material debt to others, and possessions were returned to the debtor. This was liberty from the bondage of debt. This release was a reminder that liberty comes from God, the true owner of all property, and it is God who grants as people use of the property.
How exactly was liberty defined by Americans at this time? They turned to the Bible to help define it, specifically referencing Galatians 5:1 and 2 Corinthians 3:17. Liberty is a familiar theme for Christians because it permeates scripture, both Old and New Testaments. While struggling against Great Britain, patriotic Americans were drawn to the New Testament rhetoric of Christian liberty to express their yearning for political liberty even though they knew their critics viewed this as a misappropriation of scripture.
For example, in a May 1776 election sermon delivered before the Connecticut legislature, patriot preacher Judah Champion exclaimed, “gloomy and threatening indeed is the cloud impending our land and nation. Our privileges, civil and sacred, or eminently endangered. Under these alarming circumstances, the admonitory language of divine providence and revelation is this, ‘Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.’”
He knew it was a stretch, admitting, “our text…is only as respecting Christian liberty, but it is proposed upon this occasion to apply in a more general view what might be suggested with a particular reference.” In other words, by application he meant that liberty is so valuable, whether Christian liberty or political liberty, that we must stand fast to preserve it.
Generally speaking, “Liberty” meant the prerogative to act, will, or choose, that is, self-determine; it also meant release from obligation, servitude, or constraint. As one legal scholar rights, “the bane of liberty… was licentiousness; its opposite was slavery; its antithesis was arbitrary power.”
John Dickinson, “the penman of the Revolution” wrote that the best description for “perfect liberty” was expressed in the Bible. An individual’s “capacity of enjoying his rights to the best advantage— a repeal of his fears—and tranquility of mind …[is a] perfect liberty, better described in the holy Scriptures than anywhere else, in these expressions: ‘when every man shall sit under his vine, and under his fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.’” (Micah 4:4, 1 Kings 4:25, Zechariah 3:10) Why did Dickinson think the image of a man dwelling unmolested in safety and security under his own vine and fig tree was an apt emblem of perfect liberty?
The vine and fig tree represent contentment; that is, freedom from want and covetousness. The vine and fig tree motif represents the security to produce and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor undisturbed by either lawlessness or the usurpations of the civil state.
The founders wanted this liberty, this contentment, this freedom from bondage. It is what drew the first Pilgrims to settle here and one hundred and fifty years later, it is what motivated sentiment so eloquently proclaimed by Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
The basic point is that if Christ has made us free, why would we want to be subject to any religion, pope, king or oligarchy that would place us under bondage? If we are spiritually free, then let us be politically free to establish our just laws and live peaceably under them. The notion of Christian liberty was a motivating force in the quest for political liberty.
What’s the one problem America had in promoting liberty for all? America’s engagement in slavery prompted British ministers to castigate American patriots for their hypocrisy. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, ridiculed American patriots’ complaints that the British had “enslaved” them with taxes even as the same patriots held Africans in literal chains.
Baptist minister Elisha Rich expressed his concern over this hypocrisy in a poetic reflection on the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775:
“Would thou obtain thy liberty,
Then break all bands of slavery?
And do you liberty proclaim
To all that have a human frame?
But if oppression here is found
Can you with victory be crowned?
No, no, be sure this cannot be,
While you your neighbors do not free.”
While their passion for liberty was just and warranted, they did fail to extend it to the African slave, and they knew this was hypocrisy, but “science” and law (and eventually a Supreme Court decision in 1857) justified the secondary role of the black man in colonial America.
The pulpits were not unanimous in their endorsement of rebellion against England, much less taking up arms against their fellow subjects. Revolutionary era preachers spent so much time refuting the messages of Anti-war Pacifists, who focused specifically on Matthew 5:38-39, where Jesus commanded his followers to turn the other cheek. It became one of the most cited biblical texts in revolutionary America because it was used so often by preachers discouraging the revolution.
In opposition to the pacifist, loyalist preaching of some who opposed the move toward independence, other pulpits thundered with passionate messages that offered a counter-argument. While it may seem contradictory that the ministers in service to the Prince of Peace would preach sermons encouraging way, the practice of using scripture to justify war in America can be traced back almost to its inception, to King Phillips War in 1675 when chaplain Samuel Nowell’s artillery election sermon, Abraham in Arms, set the tone for martial preaching for years to come using as its text one of the most popular pro-war scriptures, Exodus 15:3, “the Lord is a Man of War.”
This quote sits in the context of the Exodus story, which was also often preached as it seemed to capture the spirit of ‘76. As revolutionary patriots in a biblically literate society recognized, it all began when “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” Just as Pharaoh did not recognize the Israelites as loyal and productive citizens, King George III failed to recognize the loyal and productive citizens of the colonies. Just as Pharaoh’s oppression increased over time, so did King George’s. The parallels were unmistakable.
Exodus 15:3, “God is a Man of War,” held crucial implications for the colonists because it said God was not just a sovereign deity who approved of violence, but an active participant in combat. God‘s character was that of a warrior. Under this umbrella, other scriptures were added to support this assertion.
At the third anniversary of Lexington and Concord, Jacob Cushing preached a fiery religious condemnation of the British in the strongest of terms. They were no more than savages. His text was Deuteronomy 32:43, “Rejoice O ye nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries.”
Great Awakening preacher Samuel Davies delivered a stirring speech to Washington’s soldiers in 1775 after a crushing defeat at Monongahela River, titled Religion and Patriotism, the Constituents of a Good Soldier. His text was 2 Samuel 10:12, “Be of good courage, and let us play the men (act like men), for our people, and for the cities of our God.”
Two years later, Davies published the sermon, The Curse of Cowardice, to the militia in Hanover County. His text was Jeremiah’s command “cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”(Jeremiah 48:10)
Sermons reached a new level for violent rhetoric and righteous rage after the 1770 Boston massacre. Perhaps the most well-known sermon of the time it was delivered by John Lathrop of the Old North Church, Innocent Blood Crying to God from the Streets of Boston. His passage was the story of Cain and Abel.
Another popular passage promoting righteous war was from the Book of Judges and involved the prophetess Deborah. The song of Deborah (Judges 5) was often cited because of the famous “Curse of Meroz” (Judges 5:23) in which God, speaking through an angel, condemned the inhabitants of the mysterious Meroz because they refused to fight against His enemies.
The cowardly men of Meroz were compared to the heroic act of Jael, the tent-dwelling woman who drove the tent spike through mighty Sisera’s temple while he slept. Presbyterian revivalist Gilbert Tennent called her “a famous instance of female fortitude.” Not only did this account motivate wavering men to join the cause, but encouraged frightened women to maintain with strength and courage the homefront. It also strengthened the emphasis on God’s agency in victory. How else could a woman overpower a military captain? God is on the side of the right.
Some popular preachers of the time found it awkward or even wrong for a godly minister to promote bloody warfare in his sermons. In 1756, George Whitefield said “far be it from me, who profess myself a disciple and minister of the Prince of Peace, to sound a trumpet for a war,… but when the trumpet is already sounded by a perfidious enemy, and our king, our country, our civil and religious liberties are all…at stake,” then only two options remain: either pursue warfare or “justly encourage that curse” uttered by “an inspired Deborah.”
David’s heroism in battle was also a frequent topic in motivational sermons of the time. As Silvanus Conat preached in 1759, “ David was a man after gods heart; yet he was a man of war, skilled in the bloody art, and furnished above the common standard, with the qualifications of war; in this art, terrible as it is, he informs us that he was trained of God.” David prayed, “teach my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.” (Psalm 144:1)
The story of David and Goliath was a frequent theme because it contained two important reminders. It was the inspiring story of unexpected victory over a mighty foe. It was also a warning that wartime victories are God’s alone, bestowed by Providence, and outside the realm of human control. Any soldiers, military officers, or even kings who attempt to wage war without God’s blessing risk disaster on the battlefield. (1 Samuel 17:45-46) It made for easy revolutionary preaching because the colonial soldiers who were not professional military men by any sense of the word, could be compared to the novice, David. Meanwhile the regular British army was a mighty foe like that of Goliath and the Philistines.
On May 26, 1779, the Continental Congress issued a statement declaring that “America, without arms, ammunition, discipline, revenue, government or ally, almost totally stripped of commerce, and in the weakness of youth, as it were with a ‘staff and a sling only’ dared in ‘the name of the Lord of Hosts’ to engage a gigantic adversary, prepared at all points, boasting of his strength and of whom even mighty warriors were greatly afraid.”
The fears of being a David-like underdog were genuine and realistic and frequent. Virginia’s Benjamin Harrison, famously remarked to Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry, “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
The Book of Revelation with its end-time apocalyptic message and ultimate battle between good and evil provided great fodder for patriotic messages of the day. Revelation 12 which pictures a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet and wearing a crown of 12 stars is in labor. She gives birth to a child, and as soon as she does, a great red dragon appeared and attempted to devour the child. Before the dragon could devour him, the child was taken up to the throne of God and the woman fled into the wilderness where God protected her.
The child was correctly identified as Christ and the dragon as Satan but the woman in the wilderness took on symbolic significance as the church going to America, the wilderness, to escape the grasp of the red dragon, the anti-Christ tyrannical rulers of Europe along with the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Since America protected the church, the patriotic cause of the colonies supported the holy cause of Christ.
Samuel Sherwood preached just such a message and his famous sermon, Church’s Flight into the Wilderness. He dedicated it to the “honorable John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, along with Hancock’s Congressional colleagues and the brave Generals of our armies, and patriotic heroes who are spirited by Heaven to exert their superior abilities” to defend America.
He warned these fearful colonists that patriotic zeal, even against all odds, would earn divine rewards, while prudent loyalism would reap damnation. “When the wicked persecuting tyrants of the earth appear to have a great power and strength, some of a selfish and timid turn of mind may inadvertently think it’s safest to pay worship and allegiance to them.” But such a cowardly selfish people “are most artfully deluded and mistaken.” They “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone” and “have no rest day or night.” The message was clear: to defend the colonies and the church was virtuous, selfless, and divinely militant.
The battle of the two beasts in Revelation 13 was another popular apocalyptic text during revolutionary times. The dragon empowered the beast to wage war against the Saints and John declared those who kill “with the sword must be killed with the sword.” The chapter also referred to “the patience and the faith of the Saints.” Then the second beast arose. The second beast forced all the people to “receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads.” The mark of course is 666 and has stimulated fascination and conjecture throughout history. The revolutionary era was no different.
One anonymous pamphlet claimed to calculate the numerical values of Hebrew and Greek letters that added up to 666 and determined that they spelled out “Royal Supremacy in Great Britain.”
This chapter was popular because it condemns not only a tyrannical beast but also those who pay the beast idolatrous reverence calling Divine wrath upon those who obeyed the tyrants. Samuel West argued that there could be no better biblical image of the peoples “gross stupidity and wickedness” in “giving up there just rights into the hands of tyrannical monsters, and then so readily paying them such an unlimited obedience, as is due to God alone.”
Revelation 19 also provided a picture of Christ as military victor this inspiring the people to fight with Him against the powers of evil and wickedness and bondage.
Not only has the Bible provided motivation for the battle. It has also comforted the founders through the battle. One prime example is Abraham Lincoln during the dark days of the Civil War.
Keckley, who was Mary Lincoln’s personal seamstress, wrote that bad news of death and Union loses continued to roll in during 1863 as Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln sat in the living room. She writes, that the President “reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible from a stand near the head of the sofa, opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them,” Keckley recalled. “A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it.” What was Lincoln reading? Elizabeth Keckley wanted to know too, so she walked behind him, looked over his shoulder and saw that he was absorbed in the Book of Job.
His dependence on and reverence for God’s word is again apparent in one of history’s greatest speeches, Lincoln’s 1865 second inaugural address. There, he solemnly proclaimed to the world, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ (Psalm 19:9)
Much of this content has been condensed from the highly recommended book, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War by James P. Byrd